Norman Rockwell & The SardarT. SHER SINGH
Friday, July 20, 2012
Driving south from Canada, one needn’t go all the way to Boston (Massachusetts, USA) to get a taste of the best that New England has to offer.
Almost three hours short of Boston (and New York City, in a different direction), not long after one has passed Albany, eastbound Interstate 90 leaves New York state behind. The gentle shift in ambience tells you, almost immediately, that you are in the Berkshire Hills.
One summer, my daughter and I, intent on discovering Massachusetts, got off the turnpike within minutes after entering the state. We’d left Guelph (Ontario, Canada) at noon, and now, at 7:00 pm, it was time for our first overnight stop.
We got off at the very next exit and turned south … into a village named Stockbridge.
We were attracted to an inn more than two centuries old. The Red Lion, built in 1773, is well over a century old in its current form; a fire in 1896 had burned down the original structure.
We made our way past the occupants of rocking chairs on the porch, to be greeted by antiques and then shepherded by friendly hosts into a birdcage elevator and released on the fourth floor.
By the time we arrived in our room -- small, but deliciously wrapped in wallpaper, lace and quaint reminders of another era -- we knew somebody here liked Norman Rockwell. A lot.
He was everywhere. Not just copies of his usual Saturday Evening Post magazine covers, but prints and copies of paintings I had never seen before. There were photos of him and there were scenes of the village of Stockbridge painted by him.
We elected to eat dinner in what used to be an old Shaker settlement, a short drive away. Through conversation with our waitress, we discovered that Stockbridge had been home to Rockwell for the final and most productive period of his life. Since he had continued to paint to the very end of his 84 years, when he died in 1978, many of the models he had used -- ordinary folks who lived in Stockbridge -- were still alive, and living and working locally.
“You never know. The woman in the drug store, the old coot in the post office, the owner in an antique shop, you might recognize a face you’ve seen before peering at you from one of his paintings,” we were warned.
My daughter had never heard of Rockwell, though she recognized some of the magazine covers. I could never figure out why this magazine-cover illustrator was so revered in America.
We both figured we’d learn something new and decided to dedicate the morning to the Norman Rockwell Museum.
The museum itself, a loving example of Americana set against a backdrop of the Berkshires, turned out to be a treat. Just a magazine illustrator? A collection of 150 of his paintings constituting the largest collection of his originals anywhere dispels that notion forever.
My favourite is a set of four titled The Four Freedoms.
One of them in particular, Freedom of Speech, dramatically states the proverbial thousand words: it depicts a crowded room, possibly a town hall meeting, where a man has managed to make his way to the front. In the background are anxious, weather-beaten, resigned, frightened faces.
His way is blocked by a long, wooden waist-high railing, on the other side of which is a well-groomed man you and I would recognize as a “corporate type.” He glances over his shoulder, a bit surprised, a tad bit condescending, but willing to humour the intrusion. But, please do be brief, reads his expression.
The gnarled hands of the man at the bar, the soiled and frayed work-clothes, the humble but fearless demeanour, immediately bring the word “grassroots” to mind. Poised to speak on behalf of the voiceless, the afraid and the troubled, pitted against those who obviously hold power and are safely ensconced on the other side of the partition, he captures with Rockwellian succinctness the precious right of every citizen to speak up to, against, or in the presence of, those who hold power … and be heard.
It’s as if the painter had given line and form, colour and shadow, to the words of Walt Whitman who too once sang of the miracle of America.
When we leave the area, it is with a mental note to come back some day with a weekend to spare to find out more about this remarkable painter and his life’s work.
And to explore the region more: to seek out Chesterwood, the house of Daniel Chester French, best known for Abe’s imposing statue in the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC. And to catch a concert at nearby Tanglewood, the renowned summer home of the Boston Symphony.
And inshallah, God willing, even stay at, one by one, the other wonderful 18th century inns that adorn this sylvan neighbourhood.
* * * * *
A few years later, an artist friend of mine in New York finagled an invitation for me to a private residence on Park Street, the home of a lovely but frail woman … now almost a centenarian, the life-long personal assistant to Norman Rockwell.
After a lovely evening with her, which had its own delights -- another story, another day -- she led me into an adjoining room to show me her prize possession … the very reason I had flown to New York.
While visiting India half-a-century earlier with Norman Rockwell, he had noticed that she was bowled over by a handsome Sikh soldier or guard they had encountered while attending a dinner in their honoiur.
Seeing how taken she had been with him, Rockwell made a mental note but said nothing. Secretly, without a word to her, he found an opportiunity for the young Sikh man to pose for him.
When they returned to the US, not long thereafter, he presented her with a gift: a painting he had done of the striking Sardar.
It now hung in her apartment, holding pride of place!
Conversation about this article
1: Sangat Singh (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia), July 20, 2012, 9:55 AM.
OMG, now you talk of Norman Rockwell, the beloved painter, like no one else. I remember saving copies of LIFE magazine that featured his paintings. My favourite was "The Gossip" that went full circle and came back to the originating couple in a totally different reincarnation. I lost my collection to the spring cleaning of my dear Ladyship in the early 60's. I suspect your next stop might be the place where the Magna Carta was signed. Sher, you never fail to surprise. What a romping wanderlust of an education for Gehna.
2: Rosalia (Baltimore, Maryland, USA), July 20, 2012, 6:06 PM.
Whatever happened to that painting, is what I want to know!
3: Manbir Banwait (Fort McMurray, Alberta, Canada), July 21, 2012, 1:39 AM.
It would be nice to see a picture of this potrait.